The Singles Ward, the first feature film of BYU graduate Kurt Hale, opens today at Movies 5.
Friends and family gathered Wednesday to support the cast and crew in the premiere at Jordan Commons in Sandy, Utah. Likewise, the producers were able to express appreciation to those who helped create the film -- everyone from crew members to family members.
The film is a romantic comedy about the everyday lives of people involved in a singles ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It's one-of-a-kind," Hale said.
Hale co-wrote the production with John Moyer, another graduate of the BYU film school. The two met during school and have been writing together for years, Hale said.
"There is so much material that can be covered about a singles ward," Hale said. "We could have made five movies."
The $450,000 film took five months to produce with filming ending in October. That's record time, Hale said.
Time proved to be their biggest challenge in making the movie, he said. The best part about it is being done and seeing the results of their efforts.
But even with the challenges, they had "a riot" producing the film, Hale said.
"There was never a dull moment," he said.
Not only did the film give Hale substantial experience, but it gave him an opportunity to work closely with family members. Will Swenson, Hale's cousin, is the leading actor in the movie. He was born in nearby Wellsville and also graduated from BYU. He said he has been acting all his life and currently hails from New York.
Swenson said he enjoyed working with his cousin, although it was hard to stay professional at times. He also enjoyed working with co-star Connie Young, who said she has been acting since she was 8 years old. The Singles Ward was her first major film. Both Swenson and Young said they loved doing the film.
Swenson said working with such cameo celebrities as Steve Young and Shawn Bradley was "awesome."
Hale said at first it wasn't easy to cast the cameos, but as soon as he got Lavell Edwards, "they all tumbled in."
According to the film's press release, producer Dave Hunter said, "This is such a pop-culture piece, we felt that many of our LDS pop-culture celebs of today would really add something to the production."
Hale said the celebrities would help draw those who aren't members of The Church of Jesus Christ to the show. The film is available nationwide, he said.
In addition to a talented cast, the film fostered a unique soundtrack of church songs rearranged primarily by local Utah bands. The first two days the disk was available online, it sold more than 600 copies, according to the press release.
The religious-comedy combination is oxymoronic, Hale said. But, hopefully the film will generate curiosity from people who aren't members of the church, he said, and the church's missionaries can take it from there.
"I'll feel like we succeeded if people laugh," Hale said.
The Mormon film movement has taken a turn for the (less) serious. Everything about the "world premiere" for The Singles Ward was loose and informal. I walked into Jordan Commons in Salt Lake City right into a teeming group of people. A large folding table like you'd find in your local ward building was set up to hock some wares. They were selling shirts and movie posters -- or would at some point. No money was changing hands as yet.
I asked where I could get some press materials and soon had one of the stars of the film running about asking where he should put me. I was discarded in the press room.
Soon, I was sitting down with Kurt Hale. Hale co-Executive Produced, co-Wrote, and Directed The Singles Ward. He's not taking the premiere too seriously and doesn't waste any energy thinking too hard about it. He's even flippant about his film. He won't be coaxed into a discourse on the philosophy of the media and refuses to think of his film as anything more than entertainment.
He embarked on this project a year ago and actually started production less than six months ago. The whirlwind movie making seems to fall into line with the craziness of his final product. It seems to also fit in with the kinetic energy of the other co-Executive Producer -- who also holds the sole Producing credit -- Dave Hunter.
This duo won't stop and think long enough for a joke to grow stale or even to wonder about their "art." Hale makes it clear that he is a businessman making art, not an artist dabbling in business. Business drove him to insert dozens of cameo appearances into the film. And business makes him take pride in the fact that he seems to be the only one doing Mormon comedy.
That keeps him flush with hope. He knows of seven or eight Mormon films that are currently being made. I ask him whether he's afraid that they will saturate the market. He looks like he's going to say no and then tersely says, "Yes." But, no one else is doing comedy, so he feels safe to continue his projects. He has no plans to tackle drama. His next two films are already lined up. Next up is RM and the one after that will be Church Ball. He jokes that the latter title will probably have to be Rated-R.
Speaking of ratings, he admits to asking the MPAA ratings board to give Singles a PG rating instead of the G rating it probably deserves. The businessman in him figures nobody will go see a G-rated live action film. The MPAA guide says that "Mild Thematic Content" justifies the film's PG rating.
Hale made The Singles Ward for members of the church and has no desire to take on any heavy-hitting issues. He says he has no agenda with the film. Non-members should find it humorous even, though they may not understand the cultural jokes. However, if you "want to know about the church," he warns. "Call the missionaries."
The Singles Ward pokes a lot of fun at the idiosyncracies of the church and finds humor in over-simplifying behavior. It mocks shallowness, culture, and the seemingly simple moral universe of the average member, but does not cheapen worship, testimony, and religion. Indeed, the film's theme deals with what a testimony is, how it is manifest, and what it does when challenged by reversals of fortune.
The film aptly points out that dating in the church stands in stark relief from dating outside the church. Mormon singles don't just date for enjoyment or companionship, they date to size each other up as possible eternal companions. But, in The Singles Ward the differences don't end there. Every Mormon character in the film is pushed to the limit of absurdity: the dweeb who aggressively seeking a mate with bluntness, the overly perky assertive female, the very holy Elders' Quorum president, and the list goes on and on...and on.
At the center of this personality cyclone sits a couple of balanced people, our protagonists Jonathan Jordan (Will Swenson) and Cammie Giles (Connie Young). Jonathan had his very young marriage turn sour when his wife was evidently not as converted as he thought. He turned away from the church feeling the stigma of a "recalled" Mormon. That is, until he came in contact with Cammie, the ward activities chair. He fell for her, but she couldn't see past his shell of insincerity.
With its $425,000 budget, Singles may not have the gloss of a Hollywood comedy, but many Mormons will find it just as entertaining. All premiere audiences are overly charged. They want to be entertained; they will it. They applauded each new cameo -- which accounted for some twenty interruptions. Jonathan's monologues seem too often and forced at first, but that fades and the story pours out.
With all of this fun, Singles does manage to show some meaningful change in Jonathan's character. While the film is intentionally light on doctrine or thought, it does have it's moments of reflection and poignancy. Bracketed by the gags and jokes is a story of a man struggling to find his testimony. In that search, there's room for friends, prayer, and the value of a good eternal companion.
After the screening was over, Dave Hunter and Kurt Hale got up to offer a few words. Hunter couldn't hide his emotions behind the jokes as he thanked key people and expressed his love to his wife. Hale joked that the investors were "still here, which is good." Referring to the soundtrack, he said, "We apologize if you're offended, but we think we did a great job with the hymns." You could say they spiced them up.
All in all, the Mormon film movement is going very well. The current string of films certainly can compete for our money and our attention. God's Army was a fantastic start both in revenue and in breadth. Brigham City made for a good quick follow-up. Other Side of Heaven brought a whole new level to the field. And now, Singles introduces us to Mormon comedy in film.
Hale and Hunter had fun making this movie and hope that you will have fun watching it. If you do, they'll have fun all over again.
PROVO (Feb. 7) -- It's good entertainment.
And if entertainment is what you're after in a movie, and if you're acquainted enough with the LDS culture to appreciate the humor in so much of what we do without even thinking about it, see "The Singles Ward," a feature-length film that captures the culture and comedy of its title.
The quirky nature of a singles ward and its inhabitants, along with other humorous aspects of the local culture, make it the laugh-out-loud movie its producers -- BYU film grads Kurt Hale and Dave Hunter -- intended it to be. Don't expect any major truths or deep plots; just go and enjoy a film that accurately portrays some of the real, if uncomfortable, aspects of the local marriage mill.
The acting is good, and there are some creative camera angles in a film that looks and sounds professional. The fact that the producers were able to combine so much cultural humor and put it on the big screen is an accomplishment in itself. That they were able to do it in five months on a fraction of what most movies are made today is a miracle.
The script, by Hale and John Moyer, is based on L.A. comedian Moyer's own experience of being married briefly, then tossed back into a singles ward. Stand-up comic Jonathan (Will Swenson) is on-again-off-again with church activity until he discovers Carrie (Connie Young) in the local singles ward led by Brother Angel (Wally Joyner). As soon as Carrie sees through his insincerity and decides she wants nothing to do with him, Jonathan begins his quest to win her over.
The slapstick comedy and clever script, combined with some strange roommates and personalities we've all become acquainted with while playing the Dating Game, make "The Singles Ward" appeal to all ages. It's interesting to pick out several local celebrities in cameos.
Although it slips into uncharacteristic seriousness that feels out of place for a few minutes near the end, the overall tone of "The Singles Ward" is light-hearted fun.
- Guapo Records has released the soundtrack on CD, featuring several local bands in high-energy arrangements of familiar Primary songs and hymns. It's available at Wal-Mart, Sam Goody, and other local music outlets, as well as through www.ldssingles.com.
About a week ago I saw the latest entry into the Mormon film genre, The Other Side of Heaven.
I was anticipating a glorified LDS seminary video: a big-screen schmaltzfest guaranteed to yank on the heartstrings. Not really milk, not really meat; more like meat-flavored milk with a saccharine aftertaste. This was one movie that I was not looking forward to swallowing.
Surprisingly, The Other Side of Heaven, directed by Mitch Davis, was a very palatable experience. Is the movie great? No. But, to the film's credit, it did not live up to my expectations. It was nice and (not too) sweet. It truly was the cinematic equivalent to a warm fuzzy (that's a compliment).
Heaven was a complete 180 degrees from the two initial Mormon films, God's Army and Brigham City, both directed by Richard Dutcher.
Dutcher's films are like milk-flavored meat-if you bite off too much, you might choke. Granted, they fill you up, but by the end you're exhausted from so much chewing.
But I admire Dutcher's willingness to take risks with his movies -- he knows not everyone within the Church likes his films, but he did start modern Mormon Cinema almost single-handedly. (His next project, a biography of Joseph Smith, is certain to cause controversy here in the Beehive state.)
Neither Dutcher nor Davis have yet to make a great film within the LDS cinema niche. And it might be a while until we really see truly memorable films worthy to be called classics.
So now you're probably wondering why I want you to see these movies if they're not that great to begin with.
The answer is this: if we want great Mormon films in the future, we have to support the ones we have now.
Even if that means going to the upcoming The Singles Ward, which, from what I've read, appears to be the biggest inside joke ever made -- unless you live in Utah or selected parts of Idaho, you won't get it. Hopefully, for those of us who do get it, we'll be laughing.
Going to a movie out of obligation might sound a bit silly, but if there is a people who do things out of obligation, it's us Mormons. And going to a movie -- even an okay LDS one -- is a lot more enjoyable than sitting through another meeting on a Sunday afternoon.
I went to see The Singles Ward out of duty. I see LDS-themed movies out of obligation because the great LDS movies have yet to come, and if we dont support the ones we have now, we wont get to see the (hopefully) cinematic masterpieces years from now.
I had read some reviews previous to seeing The Singles Ward. To say they weren't very favorable was an understatement. As the movie started, I braced myself for the worst.
After a while, however, I loosened my grip.
The Singles Ward is not a great movie, but it is by no mean unwatchable. It is, in fact, likeable and (dare I say it?) entertaining. It's the first foray into the sub-genre of comedy within the LDS niche, and, for the most part, the audience (predominantly LDS) gets it. We can't expect perfection the first time.
It does come across a little region-specific jokes about Preference and Martin Harris might be a little too exclusive but it is also this inside humor that gives non-LDS, non-Utahns a chance to see what it's like to be young, single and Mormon. God's Army didn't water down the Mormonics; why should The Singles Ward be required to do the same?
There are even a couple noteworthy performances, particularly Will Swenson, who truly shines as the lead and carries the film with a surprising amount of ease. Kudos to Lincoln Hoppe who plays the love struck loser of the ward. He had me laughing the most.
In its opening weekend The Singles Ward grossed about $46,000 on only 11 screens. Apparently the public isn't too concerned with what the critics have to say (this time). If you see it out of interest or even out of duty, don't be surprised if you catch yourself laughing even if you didn't want to. There are worse ways to spend seven dollars.
** [2 out of 4 stars -- given by reviewer to "Out of Step"]
The danger of making a movie about a love triangle -- where girl likes bad boy but should be with wholesome best friend -- is that the bad boy isn't all that bad and the best friend comes off like a jerk.
In "Out of Step," Jenny (Alison Akin Clark) has been invited to attend a prestigious dance school in New York City. She isn't given a scholarship, but she's determined to work hard and pick up the much-needed financial aid for next year.
Not knowing a single soul, she just happens to overhear a conversation at a nearby restaurant table in which some guy is hitting on a couple of babes.
When they leave, she makes a comment about his "mac daddy" skills and soon discovers he's a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, too, because he's wearing his CTR ring.
Jenny and Paul (Michael Buster) become fast friends, with no interest in dating because he's on a quest to go out with a girl from every state in the Union.
Eventually, Jenny meets the classic brooding guitar player, Dave (Jeremy Elliot), who turns out to be a pretty decent guy and someone who respects her values.
They soon fall madly in love and the movie pauses for the happy-couple-music-montage -- you know the playful moments compressed into a single song scene?
Even when Jenny goes home for Christmas, she can't stop thinking or talking about this wonderful guy she's met. This worries her parents, who are concerned she'll want to marry outside her religion.
So, when Jenny goes back to New York, she can't help but contemplate her parents' advice and realizes her time with Dave is taking her away from her studies as well.
In the meantime, Jenny is bombarded with skeptical philosophy professors and traditional Christian followers who test her resolve in her LDS faith.
Unfortunately, there's never any doubt where this all is headed, and it doesn't help that the film is littered with the same cliched dialogue we've heard a hundred times before.
Admittedly, it's a better-looking and -sounding movie than the recently released "The Singles Ward" -- making special note of its soothing soundtrack.
While "Singles Ward" had more heart, creativity and humor, "Out of Step" was anything but -- it walked the same old formulaic path.
Again, appreciating the LDS Church's strong sentiment for members marrying within the faith, I was surprised when the filmmakers chose to make the nonbeliever such a kind person and the believer to be such a belligerent toad.
The chemistry was all contrary to the eventual decisions, which only made "Out of Step" feel even more out of left field.
[Note: This reviewer gave "The Singles Ward" 2 1/2 stars.]
Well, it was bound to happen. It seems I've officially become a shill for the movie studios.
OK, so that's an exaggeration. But the studios sure have been quoting me a lot lately in newspaper ads for their movies.
Frankly, I was wondering when it was finally going to happen. In five years, I'd only been quoted once -- and that was for a "Star Trek" film ("First Contact," which was clearly the best of the three "Next Generation" movies).
But in the past couple of months, the quotes have come fast and furious. First came a pair of "for your consideration" ads in the Hollywood trade papers, using bits from my reviews to tout Laurie Holden's performance in "The Majestic" and for Tilda Swinton's leading performance in "The Deep End." (It should be noted that both those campaigns were unsuccessful.)
Local ads campaign for the French comedy/fantasy "Amelie" (which received four stars from yours truly), director Robert Altman's class comedy-drama/mystery "Gosford Park" (ditto) and the military thriller "Black Hawk Down" (three stars) also quoted me as well.
(I was even quoted in Denver newspaper ads for "The Royal Tenenbaums" -- another four-star review -- though not locally, unfortunately.)
I have to admit, it's sort of gratifying. What isn't gratifying is being misquoted, as I've been with the locally produced comedy "The Singles Ward."
An ad that ran in both the Feb. 8 Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune quoted me as saying, "Cameos . . . equal laughs . . . fresh faced cast . . . amusing" about the movie, which I gave two stars. Needless to say, steam was coming out of my ears when the ad was brought to my attention (even before it happened I'd already been thinking that the review, which ran Jan. 22, read more like a 1.5-star one).
For the sake of comparison, here's where the quotes actually came from (italics have been used to emphasize the words that were used in the ad):
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Everything the critics like I hate, and everything that they hate I like . . . I like lighthearted, girl-flick, love-story movies." -- "Crossroads" star Britney Spears, pointing out the differences in her movie-watching tastes and those of film reviewers.
While controversy continues because of its release, it is still simply a story of an awakening. A different view of life. A realization of values.
Mix these pensive motifs with LDS culture banter and zany humor that walks a fine line between hilarious and cheesy, and you get the recently released LDS-based movie The Singles Ward.
With the typical bad-boy persona, Jonathan Jordan (Will Swenson) goes from a crude stand-up comedian who refuses to attend his singles ward to a church-going Family Home Evening brother, all to win over the girl he fell for.
As much as Cammie Giles (Connie Young) avoids him, Jordan, although at times insincere, keeps chasing. What makes this boy-chases-girl plot different than the others is the role the supporting characters play.
The witty, and at times funny only for their stupidity, roommates of Jordan help the audience remember who they are members of a culture with peculiarities of their own.
The Franklin Dayplanner guru Eldon (Daryn Tufts), gullible future missionary Dalen (Kirby Heyborne), hungry TV-watcher Hyrum (Michael Birkeland) and orange-haired non-LDS punk Zak (Robert Swenson) add comedy that, without their roommate roles, the movie would otherwise lack.
Despite the stereotypical characters seen in this movie that are often seen in many singles wards, the plot, and especially the ending, is not stereotypical of recent movies.
What happens to Jordan and Giles is unexpected and unexpectedly original. But it is satisfying and funny in a way only movies from a culture-specific angle could produce.
References to carrot jello, mission papers, single adult dances and church callings are funny only to Latter-day Saints, but they make for a great movie.
Extra character roles gave The Singles Ward an added dimension. Over 20 LDS celebrities made short appearances as supporting characters or random people whose scenes at times seemed superfluous.
Baseball legend Wally Joyner acted as Brother Angel, former San Francisco 49er's quarterback Steve Young became Brother Niner, current NBA player Shawn Bradley played Jordan's mechanic, former NBA player Thurl Bailey met Jordan before Bailey left on an airplane and former NBA player, and coach Danny Ainge taught the sunbeam primary children.
Richard Dutcher, producer and actor in God's Army, showed up just as Jordan and his friends began watching, ironically, God's Army on DVD. Dutcher turned down the invitation to join them, saying "those toilet scenes were kind of offensive."
Other times the cameo scenes looked thrown in just for the sake of having a cameo appearance.
LaVell Edwards shows up at the miniature golf park with a caddy and twenty putters in tow. His caddy asks him, "So what's it look like coach?"
"Well, I think it's going to be a putter," Edwards said, and they disappear three seconds later.
But for most of the cameo appearances, like WB's weather man Mitch English, Maytag repairman Gordon Jump and Totally Awesome Computers' Superdell, the quick lines and scenes gave The Singles Ward an LDS pop-culture edge.
No dirty humor, often seen in almost every recent movie, can be found in The Singles Ward. It is clean, pure fun, especially for the family and especially for the LDS youth.
And for the LDS youth contemplating the stronghold the Church may seem to have on them, the movie is a definition of that conflict.
Jordan finds that what he thinks about the Church telling him what to do is really only his making choices in life contrary to what he knows is right. Jordan comes to an awakening, a realization of his own testimony and of what he really wants in life.
In one of the last of his frequent asides to the audience, Jordan tells the audience that while he was with Allyson, a cocktail waitress he met at his work, (played by Michelle Ainge), he had everything that he had wanted, everything that he had worked towards for so long, but it was not what was right. The view of the Salt Lake Temple through the window jolted him to reality.
After a long night of thoughts and prayer, Jordan found the priorities he had lost and the direction he should take. He found that choosing the right means choosing the Lord before everything else, including his budding career as a stand-up comedian.
The movie teaches about conflicts and issues many LDS people deal with everyday.
The Singles Ward not only entertains an audience with jokes and jests, but touches them with a story that can apply to every person, LDS or not.
Rating: 4/5 stars